Thursday 7 May 2020

Plague Times Diary (28) - On Blu-ray a Brit box set of films by Roger Corman evoke memories of Alan Finney - with contributions from David Stratton and Barrie Pattison

Alan Finney (not 1964)
I feel fairly certain that discovering Roger Corman was something that happened in the wake of the blowfly enthusiasm of Alan Finney back in the heady MUFS days of 1963-5. 

In 1964 Alan got the job of the film critic on Farrago, the University of Melbourne student newspaper. His enthusiasm knew no bounds. He did not write about Godard and Resnais and all the other directors whose work popped up occasionally at the Australia or The Curzon or The Savoy. He wrote about Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Jerry Lewis, Roger Corman, Jerry Lewis and more….and Jerry Lewis. It was the start of a beautiful friendship. Alan also wrote about Hank Lennon and his impossible to see masterpiece The Clock Under the Stairs. That led us all a merry dance. 

And when he wasn’t writing under his own name he would write letters to the editor under other people’s, Celia Bennett was one, arguing the toss about the views expressed by the paper’s film critic. 
Back in the day there was a pent-up catalogue of Corman movies that had never been seen. His producers and distributors American International Pictures (AIP) didn’t have any sort of deal with any of the local distribution companies to take their prodigious output of mostly fodder for mindless audiences in the American south so AIP releases were few and far between. Our audience never quite got so down and dirty in its tastes or else was never allowed to by the people who ran the Drive-ins, who were mostly the same people who owned the theatre chains. So the Drive-ins played the same stuff as everyone else, just later at about the same time that films came to the Brunswick Alhambra or the West Brunswick Western or the East Brunswick Liberty before they disappeared forever.

Then the dam burst. Sid Blake, the bloke who bought in the stuff that filled the art house screens if not the art houses themselves, did a deal to handle AIP product and suddenly the Corman output was all over screens in Melbourne’s underground movie houses, most notably the former newsreel theatrettes The Century in Swanston Street and The Albany in Collins Street. I wouldn’t want to try and recall the order in which they tumbled out but memory says sometime back in 1963 and on into 1964 there were so many Corman films on show, so many that Alan Finney alone in Farrago paid attention to, it was expensive to keep up. Alan Finney chronicled it all though I don’t think MUFS delved into those backblocks for its programs. 

Roger Corman, Vincent Price
But, it was complicated. Apparently there had been efforts to bring in some Corman titles, the ‘prestige’ productions based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. That series began in 1960 with The House of Usher and ended four years and eight films later with The Tomb of Ligeia.  The rumour goes that the first few were banned by the Australian censor who had long taken a dislike to so-called ‘horror’. The breakthrough came with the occasionally comedic Tales of Terror, made in 1962 and finally released here in 1964. That was followed by The Raven made in 1963. 

In the meantime however non-Poe Corman pictures were all over Melbourne or at least all over the Albany and the Century.  Back in 1963 and 1964, in no particular order you could have seen Machine Gun Kelly  (1958), The Intruder (1962), The Young Racers (1963),The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and maybe more. Memory fails me. 

(But there was one man, in Sydney, who kept note of all this Corman activity. David Stratton kept impeccable records and this is what he saw way back when in Sydney. Remember that often there was only a single print of these films imported so the release would have been staggered around the state capitals. In Sydney it went like this:
THE RAVEN – seen Victory 31.10.63
THE YOUNG RACERS – seen Roma 22.2.64
X: THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES – seen (supporting THE TESTAMENT OF DR. CORDELIER!) - Capitol 8.8.64
THE TERROR – seen Capitol 21.8.65
THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH – seen Capitol 13.2.65
THE SECRET INVASION – seen Palace 19.4.66

That’s eight Corman movies in 3 years. Gotta hand it to Strat. He is the nonpareil in this little field of completist endeavour.  David also advises that he saw the early Poe/Cormans in England before landing on these shores so can't comment on any censor activism.

But most of the Poe films remained elusive until the VHS revolution in the early 80s when, in pretty drab, pan and scan copies, they were issued to a likely indifferent audience. Their day had passed. Maybe someone latched onto them for the likes of The Video Age but I have no memory of any attention being paid.

But…they are back. Thanks to Arrow in the UK there has been a superb new box set of the Corman/Poe pictures released. The transfers are exceptional. There has also been a release of The Masque of the Red Death (1964) on the local Shock Video label as part of its el cheapo Cult Cinema badge. This latter is the one where Corman had started to take himself seriously and really went for the arthouse crowd. I think someone called it sub-Bergman, clearly wondering whether Roger was trying to channel The Magician  or The Seventh Seal.  The Masque of the Red Death had as its photographer the young Nicholas Roeg, replacing veteran Floyd Crosby, not that Crosby’s work in the other films indicated he was a slouch. Roeg just brought that slight additional brilliance to the colour in a movie where constantly changing colour schemes were part of its attraction. For the last of the series, The Tomb of Ligeia, Arthur Grant was brought in.

The Pit and The Pendulum (1971)
In seven of the eight of the films Vincent Price was the key actor. (Ray Milland took the lead in The Premature Burial). There were occasional dips to other names (John Kerr was in The Pit and the Pendulum, 1961Basil Rathbone and a brilliant Peter Lorre  were in Tales of Terror 1962, Lon Chaney was in The Haunted Palace) but mostly the supporting actors were unknowns and thus presumably cheap. Still, the adorable Debra Paget, after Hedy Lamarr the most beautiful brunette in the cinema, did have roles in Tales of Terror  and The Haunted Palace and the delectable Barbara Steele had a key role in The Pit and the Pendulum.

So…the Arrow set brings back both some fond memories and the chance to see a couple of the films that slipped through my net all those years ago, The Haunted Palace  especially, which, as the extras on the disc tell started as an attempt to get away from Poe and instead adapt H P Lovecraft. AIP however had other ideas and the film came out as another Poe adaptation. The Arrow box set confirms that Alan Finney was right from the very start. Corman was a director to chase down though I can’t say that I have ever managed to get anywhere near completion. …and throughout his career, the Australian censor laid some heavy crap on him. Word was that The Wild Angels (1966), The Trip  (1967) and Gas-s-s-s (1971) were all banned at some stage though they are now all on DVD and no doubt streaming in both front and back channels somewhere. 

Thanks Alan (and Strat)….and I’m still trying to see The Clock Under the Stairs…
Hank Lennon
Final note: Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison has sent in the following additional thought.

Your comments made me recall the 1962 British Film Institute Xmas party where one of the studio publicists I knew brought along Roger Corman. As the evening wore on, it became obvious that I was the only one in the room who'd seen his output. We got along but I later found he did that with anyone who had followed his career. I even put the hard word on him for a spot on the next movie to which he responded with sympathy.

A couple of weeks later he press showed THE YOUNG RACERS in Paris where I managed to show up. I was more enterprising in those days. He acknowledged me but his attention was focused on Alain Resnais who had decided to explain MARIENBAD to him.

I miss all that.

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